Whaea Kaa Williams is a lecturer at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa. Photo: © Cornell Tukiri

My te reo journey: Whaea Kaa Williams

Whaea Kaa Williams is a lecturer in te reo Māori at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa. She remembers a time when she wasn’t allowed to speak te reo Māori “past the front gate.”

Cornell Tukiri: Mōrena, could you tell me a little about yourself?

Kaa Williams: I am now at Te Wānanga Takiura o ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori, lecturing in the Māori language. Still trying to get it alive. I was born in Ruatāhuna in a marae called Te Umuroa. Te Umuroa means the long oven, it was actually named after an oven that was needed for the pā right next door to us, and it had too many people there. They couldn’t feed them, so they had to make other hāngi ovens and then food was put in there to feed all the manuhiri that came. It’s right in the middle of Te Uruwera National Park. The school I first went was called Huiarau Native School. My brother who is older than me, he said to me, ‘When you go past the gate don’t you speak Māori, this is all English’. And so from then for about two years I didn’t speak anything, because I didn’t know the English language and I couldn’t speak my own language, so it was not a good time for me.

Then we moved out of there to another school at Murupara. At Murupara they had already started chopping down the trees because Murupara is right close to the biggest pine forest in the world almost, Kāingaroa. So they were cutting the pines and milling them, and there were a lot of English people coming into Murupara. The school had a lot of English children. It wasn’t that good for me, I felt I wasn’t learning anything. I think at the time it was sort of changing, the language was changing, even the parents felt that English had to be at school and it had to be at home as well.

Not my parents but others around that time, they all felt that English would get you ahead.

Were you surrounded by the reo at home? What time period was this?

This was about the 1940s. [Pākehā] actually regarded us as lower class. ‘You don’t speak English, so you are down there’, and I think it hit our confidence quite a bit for the family. On top of that there were too many of us in my grandfather’s place. We came back to Murupara to look after my grandfather because the grandmother died. We were too many, he only had a two bedroom house, so we actually moved into a cave, and we lived there. It was just the bedroom as the cave and we had food and eating outside. We felt it was lovely because it was an adventure. I was about six or seven at the time and we lived there for about one year. And we were going to Murupara school at the time and of course they wore uniforms, so we had to wear uniforms and my mother, I pay respects to her, she got us so clean, and we were always sort of stood up in the classroom and the teacher would say ‘look at these children, they are well dressed and they have got lunches and they live in a cave’. Of course we didn’t think about that, we just lived there. But we didn’t say to her that we spoke Māori at home, because they didn’t really like the children speaking Māori at home, it had to be English. My mother never spoke English at all, she spoke Māori.

When you were living in the cave, what were you learning?

We were living off the land. We used to catch eels and we used to keep them in a basket in the river and every time we wanted one you take it out. I didn’t like it because they bite [katakata]. They would go pig hunting and of course we grew our own potatoes and kūmara, so there was food. This thing of whiu whiu riwai [planting potatoes], you know, you think you’re just throwing it in, but you’re not, you’re planting.

Was your whānau like a protective cocoon for the language, do you think, versus the outside world?

Yes, it was very much so. I didn’t think about it at the time because I was too young. But it probably was and it was good to come home where I could talk. And I’ve always sort of wondered how did the teacher, who was English, teach us? What she used to do was actually get an older girl from the standard classes and she was the one we spoke to if we wanted to go to the toilet, translating things to the teacher.

Whaea Kaa. Photo: © Cornell Tukiri

Has the reo continued down to your children?

My children were born here [Tāmaki Makaurau], so they didn’t really speak Māori. It’s not until we went back to Ruātoki and Tāwhiri [Whaea Kaa’s husband Tāwhiri Williams] got the principal’s job at Ruātoki School that Kim and the older brother, Kani, spoke Māori. They learned from the other children because even there, Māori was not to be spoken. But we went into Ruātoki and we had to change it so that the primary school spoke Māori. We had to teach them in Māori. It was a pilot school at the time, that was 1977, so it took all that time for it to come into primary schools. It was before the Kura Kaupapa schools. It was an iwi school, that valley was still speaking Māori, it belonged to Tūhoe.

How long have you been teaching now? What do you love about teaching?

Few few years! About 50 something years. I love the babies, I think they are just beautiful. Tāwhiri doesn’t like them [katakata] because they are too young, but I love them. If you can teach the babies you can teach any class. And it’s the look in their eyes, especially at Ruātoki School, when we turned them around so that Māori had mana in the school. It was quite a big job because they didn’t believe in it. And they didn’t really believe it until we got it into them that Māori had a mana of its own and we brought in the Ringatū church as a basis for the school. We taught the infants up to standard four all in Māori and the standard five and six bits of English coming in, it was bilingual.

What do you think the health of te reo Māori is like at the moment?

I think it is quite healthy, there is a revival and people want to learn it. And they can get a job through it, there are so many jobs they can do now using Māori language. I think that was the gap that was there, you can’t get a job with Māori language. It’s just a language for fun or the marae, so, no use. But you can get a job now and I think it’s beautiful.

Is it that you are seeing more people like myself, at my age (41), taking up the language formally? My grandfather spoke Māori but never passed it down to my father and I. Do you think it’s coming full circle for people like myself?

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Yes, it’s come around. You know when I went back teaching and teaching in Māori at Ruātoki School I thought that I’ve come right around in a circle, I now see in their eyes just how beautiful the language is. And I think what you are doing is actually finding your other self, the one that’s missing, and you want it and that’s great.

What aspects of te ao Māori (the Māori world), in your whakaaro, are needed by our wider society?

Probably the culture. It is the culture that actually brings the language; it is the culture that the language falls out of. We are beginning to lose quite a lot of the culture, even on marae people are starting to speak English. We still need to keep that Māori. Tangihanga, we need to keep it Māori. There are very few [kaumatua left], and there are parts of that tangihanga where it is needed for people like us mentally, to clear the soul, to clear the wairua and just to make us feel better. We are now getting you people from Rumaki Reo and others going home and they’re sitting on the paepae because there is nobody else. There is a section that has missed out on Māori language and they can’t speak it. But, there’s the younger generation who need to learn first, to be respectful, humble. They need to learn. There’s a place, you can do it there, but also keep learning, keep learning.

Read more

My te reo Māori journey: Anna Coddington
My te reo Māori journey: Guyon Espiner
My te reo journey: Meriana Johnsen
My te reo journey: Te Karere Whitiao Scarborough


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